How the Democratic Movement to Dump Biden Went Bust

DNC Biden Stakeout

Representative Steve Cohen after a House Democratic Caucus meeting Tuesday on Joe Biden’s candidacy.
Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, In/Getty Imag

Normally when a party is facing a crisis on Capitol Hill, emotions are high. People get angry at one another. The quotes get spicy, and the intrigue builds. Look no further than the past 18 months among House Republicans. That’s not happening among congressional Democrats this week, though. Instead, they’re just sad.

A full day of internal meetings in Washington didn’t produce a hallelujah moment with Democrats uniting in confidence that Joe Biden could actually win in November. But there wasn’t the consensus needed to try to urge him to drop out of the race, either. As Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee said when asked if Democrats were on the same page, “We’re not even on the same book.”

Congress returned to work this week, the first time it has been in session since the June 27 debate in which Biden imperiled his candidacy. Expectations had been rising that the veritable dam would break and the private concerns over Biden would spill out publicly, perhaps to the point where leaders would march to the White House and tell the president to drop out. On Tuesday, House Democrats held a rare meeting at Democratic National Committee headquarters, where they put their cell phones in a cubby lest any members leak details of the meeting as it happened. Senate Democrats gathered for their weekly lunch in the Capitol. By the end, the dam remained mostly intact.

After filing out of the two-hour House meeting, some Democrats still enthusiastically backed the incumbent. Lou Correa of California argued that the results of the presidential primary are binding: “At the end of the day, the voters chose Biden as the nominee, not us.” He went on to dismiss concerns about Biden’s age as well: “When you talk about his age, 80 is the new 60, right?” Adriano Espaillat of New York shouted at reporters as he left the morning conclave that he was “staying with Papa.”

Many others were simply rote in their support. Speaking in his weekly press conference, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer repeated the phrase “I’m with Joe” in response to every question about the nominee. Pete Aguilar, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, gave a similar refrain as some other Democrats: “Right now, President Biden is the nominee, and we support the Democratic nominee that will beat Donald Trump.” Democrats also repeatedly pivoted to fears about a potential Trump return to the White House. Maxwell Frost of Florida told reporters that when he talked to voters, “the thing people bought up wasn’t Biden’s age but the fact that they are scared to death of Project 2025 and the far-right wing.”

Those willing to publicly urge Biden to drop out, who tally a handful or so, did so with grim-faced resolve. Adam Smith of Washington told reporters that “the concerns that I had leading up to that were significantly elevated after the debate, elevated to the point where I became convinced that we would be better off without him.”

Dean Phillips, who mounted a quixotic primary campaign against Biden based on concerns over his age and his ability to beat Trump, felt mixed emotions over the events of the past weeks. “If this is vindication, vindication has never been so unfulfilling,” he said. The Minnesota Democrat added “Am I disappointed at those in power for not heeding my call when they knew the same thing I did? Absolutely.”

The varying opinions on Biden had left Democrats frozen: While most of his critics figured the president would likely lose if he remained on the ticket, they also estimated that an unsuccessful effort to oust him would just widen the margin of defeat and cause collateral damage downballot, possibly dooming their own campaigns. Many took an abstract view of the process as if it were an intellectual question that needed to be worked out on a blackboard. “I think we are having an important national conversation, and I am confident that the president will make a decision in the best interest of the country,” Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland told reporters Monday. There was no sense that Biden had already announced his decision a number of times, including in a letter to congressional Democrats and again during a phone interview with Morning Joe.

By Tuesday evening, a sense of fatalism gripped the party, fueling a desire among many just to resolve the crisis quickly and salvage what they could politically. As one Democratic donor said, “The longer it lingers, the worse it is going to be in November.” Only Biden could truly decide to remove himself from the ticket, and barring a shocking turn of events, he wasn’t going to relinquish his grip. In the meantime, the longer the media feeding frenzy continued, the tougher it would be for Democrats in competitive races — the last thing Democrats want to do is spend day after day answering questions about Biden’s cognitive abilities. There would be no open convention, no Sorkinesque sacrifice, just another grim four months of plodding along with a flawed nominee.

One senior Democratic aide recycled a T.S. Eliot line that was on its way to becoming a cliché more than ten years before even Biden was born: “This won’t end with a bang but a whimper.” It seemed applicable not only to the effort to remove Biden from the ticket but to his reelection campaign as well.

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